Success vs. Faithfulness

By Kevin Howell

America is driven by success. It’s almost in our blood. Just look at our economic system—which says a lot about a nation. Capitalism is based on opportunity, private ownership and individual freedom to obtain wealth. Add to that a social dynamic, and “The American Dream” is generally accepted as owning a home, having a spouse, a good job and being well-off—if not filthy rich. Most of us were raised with similar concepts of success; whether we were either taught it in our homes, fed it by the images marketed to us in the media, or, if we grew up in poverty, perceived it as the opposite of how we were living.

success imageI think most of us, in some form, share that dream. Even if it’s not about the money (and it shouldn’t be), we desire success. If you’re like me, then you have a dream…something in your heart that you always wanted to accomplish. Through time and circumstance, some of us have let dreams fade, while others are still in pursuit of those goals. Whether it’s a specific aspiration or just that good ole American ambition, it takes drive to accomplish it. That’s why I admire successful people, because I know they’re driven. It took risks, time and sacrifice to get to where they are. Oprah, Diddy, Trump, Gates, Obama: they are all public figures who pushed themselves to get to their levels of success.

But is success the ultimate purpose of our endeavors? Or rather, might it be faithfulness instead?

I’ve always been one to pursue success. I consider myself ambitious with sort of a Type-A personality. I tend to dream big and go after my goals. And my aspirations aren’t selfish or worldly; many of them are intended to glorify God. But even in a “righteous pursuit,” I tend to get off track. Maybe it’s that American ambition in me, but I like to think beyond those plans that God places in my heart. It’s great to start a magazine, but imagine if I start a publishing company. It’s cool to write articles and essays, but how about writing books, who knows, there could be multiple bestsellers. Sounds good, right? It even fosters a feeling of nobility. And if I accomplish those things, I’d be considered pretty successful, but I wouldn’t necessarily be faithful. The challenge for all of us is to simply stick to the plan—the plan God has for our lives. He’s wired us with certain skills, abilities and interests in order to fulfill His purpose and live fulfilled lives. The problem is we can easily get off course, seeking success. It reminds me of the one time I went to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. In the 10 minutes it took them to change my oil and filter, they ceaselessly tried to convince me that I needed new transmission fluid, an air filter change, new brake fluid, more anti-freeze, and even car parts I  never heard of. I didn’t fall for the sales pitch, because I came for only one reason—an oil change.

It’s the same way with our lives. God has given us a certain assignment, career, or purpose, yet our culture continually tries to con us into going for more: more money, more degrees, more accomplishments, more notoriety, another title, another ministry, and the list goes on. These things aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but if we’re reaching for them outside of the realm God has for us, then we’re seeking success and not faithfulness.

I recently read something that said there’s no such thing as prospering outside the will of God. I thought that was dead-on. And I look no further than our standard—Jesus Christ—to prove it. Jesus didn’t live the American Dream. He didn’t own a home, had no wife, no kids. He was only a carpenter (and He quit that job when He was 30). And although He may have had money, He wasn’t ballin’ like the tax collectors. So maybe He wasn’t successful. But He was faithful, and that’s all I intend to be.

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Losing My Religion

losing my religionBy Kevin Howell

Remember that old R.E.M song, Losing My Religion? I wasn’t into them that much, so I don’t really know what the song was about, though it had a catchy hook. But for me, “Losing my religion” is a process I’ve been going through the past year or so, sort of a purging you might say. And the key word of the phrase is my.

There are many different connotations of religion—some negative, some positive. There’s what the Bible calls “pure religion” (taking care of orphans & widows and being unspotted from the world); and there’s religion viewed as rigid, traditional, strict and formulaic. I’ve always been instructed and inclined to avoid the latter expression of religion in my faith walk, convinced and confident that true spirituality was a relationship with God, which I had…until my relationship became religious.

I would have never expected it to happen to me, but looking back, I see I how it did. See in relationships, such as a romantic one, there are certain actions that draw you closer to each other and express your love—for example, phone conversations (and text messages), dates, flowers and love letters, all that good stuff. Now, as a relationship matures those actions can grow stale if the individuals focus on the actions of affection instead of the object of affection. That’s what happened to me. For years I tried to perfect a pattern that would make me a strong Christian: daily Bible study, prayer, worship, confession and intercession. Necessary disciplines? Yes. Conducive to spiritual growth? Absolutely. But what happens when on most mornings you fall asleep face-first in the Bible…and in the middle of prayer your mind wanders for 30 minutes and you lose your train of thought. See, the disciplines got me to a certain stage in my spiritual walk, but depending on them as some magical faith formula eventually failed me. I hit a wall. And my daily routine became more of a burden than a blessing. I had created a rigid, monotonous religion.

So I’ve been in a new process, one of unlearning and habit-breaking. Understanding that God simply wants heart-to-heart conversations rather than me reciting scripture. He rather have 30 seconds of honesty than 30 minutes of rhetoric I call worship. I’m learning to delight in the Object of my affection in a disciplined freedom. I think author Donald Miller summed it up best in his book, Searching for God Knows What:

“Some would say formulas are how we interact with God, that going through motions and jumping through hoops are how a person acts out his spirituality. This method of interaction, however, seems odd to me because if I want to hang out with my friend Tuck, I don’t stomp my foot three times, turn around and say his name over and over like a mantra, lighting candles and getting myself in a certain mood. I just call him. In this way, formulas presuppose God is more a computer or a circus monkey than an intelligent Being. I realize that sounds harsh, but it is true.”

So true. And I finally get it. Yet every day, I still need to be reminded to lose my religion.

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On a Mission to Dance

By Kevin Howell

Earlier this summer, you could find Chris Rodriguez dancing in the streets of South America…but he wasn’t at Carnival, nor was he shooting a music video. Instead, he was on an unlikely mission, leading a contingent of college students on a ministry-related trip where dance was the medium.

This isn’t where he expected to be, though. Not two years ago as a sophomore at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. Sure, he wanted to go on a missionary trip some day, he just never felt like he was ready. An opportunity came in 2007, when he was part of team sent to an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. Something on that trip changed him forever, and it wasn’t the tequila.

“It was one of those things… I got hooked and after the trip I felt like I was called to missions full-time,” Rodriquez said.

But before selling all his belongings and abandoning America for life along the Amazon or service in sub-Saharan Africa, he got some advice from the director of the orphanage in Tijuana. He suggested that Rodriguez finish school first, as an education could benefit him in missions. The director also suggested that Chris stay involved with the cause, even when he wasn’t traveling, in order to feed his passion. Rodriguez did just that, supporting other missionary teams financially, and setting out on his second venture the following summer to Paraguay.

“The first trip was more of a hands-on work trip, but the Paraguay trip was more arts, which was more my thing because I’ve been doing music and dancing for so long,” said Rodriguez, who studies Worship Arts at ORU. “I felt like I could do stuff like this because I realized people were open to music and the arts, particularly the young people.”

During the month-long mission, Rodriguez and the group put on concerts at public and private schools and afterward shared the message of Christ. On weekends, they assisted feeding programs and visited orphanages.

“In South America, they’re very familiar with God, and religion is a normal thing,” Rodriguez said. “Because religion is such a part of the culture, kids were open to the message of Jesus and the principals of the schools wanted us to come and share Jesus with them…They’re much more warm in South America; they’re very loving people. Even if they don’t want anything to do with God they’re not going to reject you as a person because that’s just not how they are.”

THE DANCE REVOLUTION

When Rodriguez returned to school the following semester, the university’s missions director approached him and a friend about leading a dance missionary team. They put together a proposal for a four-week trip to Brazil and Paraguay and began interviewing and auditioning students for the team during the fall.

“We got together as a team in October but we didn’t start actually practicing until January. We had meetings, like logistical meetings, but we really wanted to just work on their hearts and make sure that they weren’t joining the team just because they could dance. So we had times of worship, times of prayer, devotion and logistical things like fundraisers, applying for visas and passports.”

After the Christmas break, the group began practicing twice a week, primarily working on hip-hop dance routines. In June, the eight-person team descended south of the equator armed with 13 dance features as well as their personal testimonies to share with the South American people. They hit up schools, daycare centers, churches, and even the streets, communicating the message through their moves. Though they had plenty of fun, the trip was intense. Most days they were up at 6 a.m. for a full day of ministry and didn’t return until midnight. Probably the biggest challenge was within the team itself, as different personalities clashed.

“Most people will tell you that if you live with someone for long enough you begin to feel like, ‘You were a great person to know casually, but now that I’m living with you I just want to punch you in the face,’” Rodriguez added.

As the leader on this trip, Rodriguez had to manage those different personalities and deal with his own insecurities. He said at times he likes to disconnect from people and spend time alone, but within a team, he couldn’t do that. He also had to emerge from his laid-back personality and be more confident and assertive as a leader.

Rodriguez said the biggest lesson he learned on the trip was integrity. He was accountable for the team’s money, carrying around more than $7,000 in cash. He also was traveling with a group of mostly women — single, attractive women — and he was in Brazil, where, let’s just say the women are easy on the eyes and they don’t dress modestly. Needless to say, the 22-year-old leader had to set up personal boundaries.

As a veteran of four missionary trips, Rodriguez says there’s always a little culture shock visiting a new country, but there’s also an adjustment period in returning to the U.S. He said there are aspects of the countries he’s visited that he enjoys better than America, but he has learned to keep it all in proper perspective.

“There’s good in both places and there’s bad in both places. I just have to learn how to take the good from both of them,” he said. “My worldview has changed because I’ve experienced different parts of the world. So I’ve created this worldview that is shaped by all these experiences and makes an ideal worldview in a sense.”

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Elvis, Arthur, and Grace

By David Heras

When I was in middle school, I went to Space Camp. I learned one important thing:  kids sure can be mean to each other in middle school.

I learned a whole lot more, but mostly because afterwards my parents took me on a sort of hippie’s tour of the South. We stayed in a hotel so old and forgotten even the ghosts were afraid of it. We toured Memphis because Joni Mitchell sings about it. We saw where Martin Luther King was shot (before it became a tourist destination). And we went to Graceland, mostly because of a song by Paul Simon.

That song has been in my mind lately. He talks about taking his son to see Graceland, and not quite knowing why. “For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland.” He sings that great line, “Losing love is like a window in your heart.” And he finishes with, “Maybe I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”

And I started thinking about the words “Grace…land.” Maybe that’s what he was actually looking for. Not a mansion in the hills, but a Land of Grace — a place where Paul, Elvis and the rest of us don’t have to try to measure up any more. A place where we can just be ourselves and be accepted.

Let’s be honest. Christianity isn’t the only place to get acceptance. There are lots of groups that offer acceptance to those who would come. What Christianity offers, however, is very different. Christianity offers grace.

So how is grace different from acceptance?

First, grace is unmerited. Grace has no pre-set requirements necessary for acceptance.  In plain language, grace does not require people to measure up. Many other groups promise acceptance, but it’s conditional acceptance. We’ll gladly accept you, just as long as you meet certain requirements. Dress as we dress. Go where we go. Think as we think. If not, we have to withdraw that acceptance. Friends can act this way. Family can act this way. Heck, even churches can act this way. But this isn’t grace.

God’s grace is an acceptance that is offered to any and all who would receive it. It doesn’t require an entrance fee, attitude or pre-set way of thinking. While our friends so often expect us to measure up in order to receive acceptance, God’s grace has no measuring-up requirements. In fact, that’s part of why the message of grace is offensive. God’s grace is so large, so huge, so costly and so extravagant that measuring up is impossible. Grace comes to us because Jesus Christ died on the cross. Christ’s death opened the door of grace. Thus, one cannot do anything to deserve grace. One can only simply receive it. In one of my favorite pieces of poetry in the Bible, Solomon writes, “If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned” (Song 8:7). The Hebrew grammar suggests that what would be scorned is the fact that the person tried to buy love with money. The underlying statement is so basic it remains unsaid: money can’t buy me love.

In the same way, good works and upright living cannot buy grace. Good works are important. Upright living, I think, makes for a happier life than the opposite. But as far as gaining acceptance from God, it is useless. Don’t you see? Nothing we do causes God to accept us. It is everything Christ did that causes God to accept us. We need to come to realize that God longs to accept us…and his grace is the result of that longing.

Now, how is grace different from the world’s version of acceptance? Grace requires truth.

Early in my career, I used to come home from work and watch the children’s show Arthur on PBS.  (Yeah, it’s silly. I’m embarrassed. I don’t do it anymore.)  Anyway, there’s a segment in the middle of the show called “And now a word from us kids.” The producers go to a grammar school somewhere and videotape the students doing something that relates thematically to what the characters are doing in the cartoon.

One day it was talent day. Every student came up and demonstrated his or her talent. At first the talents were pretty good. “My talent is singing.” And the kid sang a nice song. “My talent is dancing.” And the girl in the ballerina dress did a pirouette.

As the students continued, the talents became less impressive. “My talent is whistling.”  OK, I can’t do it, so I guess it counts. “My talent is hopping on one foot.” “My talent is making funny faces.”

Now I know that these are children, but there’s something not quite right here. Hopping?  Faces? Those aren’t talents.

The problem is not with children. The problem is with society. It’s like the Christian coffee houses I used to go to in college. There was one singer who was just awful. We in the audience, trying to be nice, applauded anyway. The poor guy believed us. He left that place proud of his “talent” when to all of us it was clear that his talent was not in singing.

Sadly, much of the acceptance the world offers us is like that. Then one day we wake up and find out that we’ve been accepted for something that just isn’t valid. Or we’ve been partially accepted based on the small part of us that people see, but nothing else. Or we see that we’ve been accepted for all the wrong reasons. Or, like the guy from the coffee house, we’ve built up a definition of ourselves based on the acceptance the world has given us. Then one day we are smacked by truth — our definition doesn’t really define us at all — and we are left empty and misled.

The talent thing is just another way that we try to measure up. When I was in high school, I desperately tried to use my acting and speaking skills to try to measure up. And it worked — but only to a point. As I laid myself down on my bed each night, I still was stuck with me, and I couldn’t escape the truth that my attempts at measuring up didn’t work.

That’s where grace comes in. Grace declares that measuring up is impossible. Jesus came to live the perfect life — to measure up for us. And he gathered evidence for a celestial, fact-finding mission. When he hung on the stake of execution, he gave his thesis statement on the state of humanity: “Father God, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And his sacrificial death purchased that forgiveness for us.

But we have to approach grace honestly. We have to come face to face with the truth about our state. We have tried to measure up, but we have failed. We have to agree with Christ’s thesis. “Yes, Lord, I do need forgiveness, because I don’t know what I am doing.”

And that can be a painful thing to admit. It takes guts and boldness to be able to say, “God, I need the sacrifice of Jesus because I have tried to measure up on my own and I have completely failed.”

But once we make that pronouncement — trudge through the slough of despondency, and view our own ugliness through honest eyes — then the grace is released. Assenting to the need for grace opens up the floodgates of grace, and measuring up is no longer an issue.

David is a husband, father, writer, high school teacher, and very small-time actor who still gets moved by the song “Amazing Grace.”

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Thoughts on faith and life